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Friday, October 13, 2017

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) - A Scientific Approach to Sustainability

Holistic LCA Analysis

A comprehensive approach to understanding environmental and economic factors.

Written by Fanxu Meng, Research Associate, Energy Production and Clean Energy Technology

LCA and Sustainability
Paper or plastic bags? Gasoline or electric vehicles? Paper towel or hand dryer? As we ponder such questions to make an environmentally friendly choice, we usually rely on intuition. What pictures appear in your mind’s eye as you consider the options? Do you see plastic in the gullets of sea creatures, or barren slopes that have been clear-cut? Do you envision tailpipes and smog, or heaps of spent batteries? These mental images can help shape your decisions, and cause us to rethink previous actions. These are complex questions on which we try to make informed choices, bringing in new ideas and information along the way.

As we consider these questions, we conjure images to help us decide. We may envision various stages in the life cycle of a product, encompassing raw material extraction, transportation, processing, service life, and disposal. Each stage involves multiple processes. Second thoughts leave us with uncertainties about these complex processes. Scientists and researchers seek well-defined, quantifiable, systematic means of evaluating the varied aspects of a product life cycle. Beyond intuition, analysis and data are needed to more fully understand the environmental implications of our choices.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is an invaluable tool for such quantitative evaluations. It is a comprehensive approach to analyzing the environmental aspects of all inputs and outputs associated with the materials and processes in a product life cycle. LCA identifies and quantifies the interactions among materials, processes and ecosystems. It incorporates sustainability with analytical parameter, giving us criteria by which to measure environmental performance. In this way, LCA powerfully informs innovation, giving substance and metrics to our visions of sustainability in design.

LCA is inherent to the very structure of HARC, literally. The new HARC building was designed from a life cycle perspective. Working with Walter P. Moore, HARC leadership set out to build a corporate home with sustainability in mind. From this vision, LCA provided informed support for decisions on all aspects of design and construction.

By specifying a steel-frame structure and reducing the amount of cement utilized on the project, 300,000 pounds of CO2 emissions were eliminated. This thoughtful choice early-on in the design process reduced global warming potential, acidification, and smog formation potentials by 20%, 25% and 15%, respectively. HARC scientific expertise in energy efficiency was brought to bear, incorporating geothermal and solar sources, high-efficiency building envelope design and materials, and a smart HVAC management system. HARC scientists will continue to study performance of the building systems with LCA, evaluating effectiveness in attaining sustainability goals.

In other efforts, HARC has used LCA in the study of natural gas-powered Combined Heat and Power (CHP) systems. CHP provides on-site thermal energy in addition to electricity, an advantage over centralized power generation. For users who need significant amounts of thermal energy in processes CHP can reduce or eliminate the need for boilers and heaters, avoiding combustion emissions and other impacts associated with the manufacture and operation of these conventional types of heating equipment. With information in the study, decision-makers can formulate specific, actionable plans for implementing CHP. Using data on thermal efficiencies, capacity, and other factors, options for CHP can be compared with centralized power and conventional thermal systems that would supplanted. This work was accomplished through the efforts of the Southwest CHP Technical Assistance Partnership program at HARC. The study report will be available in the near future.

HARC is currently using LCA in work focusing on comparison of power generation technologies used in oil and gas operations. This study investigates fuel consumption and fueling infrastructure, as well as engine exhaust emissions and other factors. Working collaboratively with partners in industry and academia, the HARC Environmentally Friendly Drilling Systems Program has conducted field studies of high-horsepower engines used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Using advanced instrumentation, scientists directly measure emissions, fuel consumption, and other operational aspects. This research has already yielded new technology for addressing engine emissions with catalytic treatment.

With broad, interdisciplinary scientific expertise, HARC researchers focus on technologies, practices, and policy to empower public and private entities with information to make economically sound decisions with sustainability in mind. LCA offers a comprehensive approach to analyzing the many economic and environmental aspects of sound decision-making.

The intuition that drives us to envision a better future can be confidently informed with scientific data and Life Cycle Assessment analysis. With the mission of “helping people thrive and nature flourish”, HARC research in the areas of air, energy, water, and resilience brings clarity to these visions of sustainable prosperity and healthy ecosystems.